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Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action’ Is a Marvel of Relaxing Tension

Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos at Lowlands Festival / Photo by Greetsia Tent/WireImage
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: August 27, 2013
Label: Domino

Franz Ferdinand broke with Britpop the same way the Strokes declared war against mook rock. The Glasgow foursome studied art. They dressed up. They sang of sex and struck their guitars like drums, beating out a death knell to everything baggy, undisciplined, and unambitious. All that hooky tension gave them a groove, and by touring nonstop behind their spanking first two albums in 2004 and ’05, they wound it tighter than any rhythm-centric rock band since the ’70s punks actually learned to play their instruments, give or take a few Hives and Futureheads jams.

Unfortunately, things got so tight that they gave themselves no room to move. The band’s archetypically difficult third album, 2009’s Tonight: Franz Ferdinand crowded the spaces between their spritely riffs and broke down their locomotive dynamic via too many overdubs — a fatal flaw for a project fundamentally about in-sync muscles and minds.

Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action instead favors a form-fitting precision far more flattering to such a lean aesthetic. The title track pans frontman Alex Kapranos and Nick McCarthy’s scratchy guitars wide across the stereo field, so you can detect every nervous detail, simultaneously evoking garage rock and funk, with the staccato attack of both Talking Heads and Chic. Everything is impactful, and the punchiness suits Kapranos’ clipped vocal delivery. Although “Right Thoughts” doesn’t deliver the same slam-dunk impact as the band’s previous album-launching singles, the cut’s nagging simplicity gets the party started, and the production by Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor (with mixing from engineer Dave Fridmann) respects the quintessential FF groove: It boogies so insistently that you can’t help but follow suit.

Like the original garage bands, Franz Ferdinand play dance music with an unshakable steadiness only supplemented with — not supplanted by — technological tricks. The first of two tracks co-produced by Norwegian disco-house maestro Todd Terje (alongside Kapranos’ cheeky Prince House Rabbit behind-the-boards alias), “Evil Eye” documents the band’s interlocked bump ‘n’ slap while augmenting it with reverberating dub to accentuate the villainous spookiness. Whereas the other Terje track, “Stand on the Horizon,” starts like a twinkling R.E.M. ballad, slowly turns up the thump, flips into some trebly (and Orange Juice-like) twittering guitar action, then climaxes as fancy-pants indie violinist Owen Pallett approximates ’70s disco strings as an overdubbed-Kapranos choir suggests a beckoning Donna Summer backed by the Village People. All those disparate styles and references should logically clash, yet here they flow seamlessly. By Franz standards, it’s relaxed.

Believe it or not, it’s also compact and concise. By embracing divergent collaborators but limiting themselves to 10 tracks and 35 minutes, the boys counter their only fault: sameness. “Fresh Strawberries” ventures furthest out of the band’s comfort zone: Decked out with twang-y guitars, upwardly modulating choruses, lush female harmonies, and the record’s loveliest tune, it’s straight-up power pop. With lyrics like “I believe there’s nothing to believe / But I’d love the manual,” Kapranos may be contemplating mortality and his own lack of religious faith — subjects far afield from his usual fleshy concerns — while proving that he can dramatically hold a few notes, too, in addition to his default yelp-and-growl. Yet Franz Ferdinand’s sonic signature lingers: Even as the bass and drums approximate the elegant lockstep of McCartney and Starr, the guitars spool out at expressionistic angles.

“Treason! Animals” and “The Universe Expanded” — the two tracks produced by Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn and John — ramp up the angst even higher through Farfisa-fed suspense. Even as they elaborate on their melodies and conjure the compositional quirks endemic of this band ever since “Take Me Out” drastically dropped its tempo after the first minute, these post-punks stress mood over their own collective chops. And the words, as usual, are pretty great too, even though they don’t often jump out at you until late in the album: “I’m in love with a narcissist / I know, for the mirror told me,” Kapranos moans, then cannily continues the chant, swapping out “narcissist” for “nemesis,” “pharmacist,” and “analyst.” He’s also grown more introspective, though the singer avoids overt confession until the final cut, “Goodbye Lovers and Friends,” where this monochromatic devotee declares his hatred of pop music and bright colors, proclaiming, “This really is the end” as the final notes fizzle. Is he anticipating his own funeral, or announcing his band’s own?

Although this is probably just the drama queen in Kapranos talking, an early exit would be a shame: Having opened the door for Bloc Party, produced the Cribs, and paved the stylistic way for Arctic Monkeys, Two Door Cinema Club, Savages, and other similarly uneasy bands, Franz Ferdinand stay relevant here even while U.K. rock has otherwise slipped behind its pop, R&B, and EDM counterparts. They’re as much a club act and an art project as they are a rock group, and with LCD Soundsystem gone, they’re the best of this crucial fusion. All hail the rare guitar-based dance band still daring to compete with the computers.